Spurs notebook: Ginobili’s hand injury sped up Neal’s return

Had things gone according to the Spurs’ plan, Gary Neal would have played Thursday night for the Austin Toros against the Maine Red Claws in an NBA Development League game at Cedar Park Center, just northwest of Austin.

Instead, Neal was in the starting lineup for the Spurs at the ATT Center, going 3 for 3 on 3-point shots in the first quarter of a blowout victory over the Mavericks.

On his way back to NBA action after undergoing an appendectomy on Dec. 12, Neal had been assigned to the Toros so he could get some contact in 5-on-5 practices. Ideally, he would have played a couple of D-League games, including Thursday’s against the Red Claws, to be fully ready for NBA action.

What changed for Neal and the Spurs, of course, was the injury to Manu Ginobili’s left hand, a fractured fifth metacarpal that will have Ginobili on the sidelines for approximately six weeks.

“I was down there,” Neal said. “I practiced two days. I think they had me down there to play some games, but Manu got hurt. It kind of sped it up.”

Neal reports no lingering effects from his appendectomy.

“It actually stopped hurting about a week after the surgery,” he said. “I’d been working out on the bike and the treadmill for about two weeks now.”

Neal said his fitness level has been fine in his first two Spurs games. Getting reaccustomed to the pace and physicality of NBA games will take a while longer.

“My wind’s pretty good,” he said after scoring 12 points against the Mavericks. “I don’t think my wind is affecting my game. I just have to get used to playing with the contact again. There were a couple times I had shots and the close-outs were hard and I shot an airball, or the ball was short.

“I just have to get my rhythm and timing back. That will come. I’ll continue to work in practice with the coaching staff, and I’ll get my rhythm back and it will come in the games, sooner than later.

“The first (3-pointer) went in, the second one went in and the third one. They got a little harder when the close-outs got tougher later in the game. With game reps, my timing should be coming back.”

SETTING THE BAR: It’s not often that Matt Bonner is the Spurs’ leading scorer in a game, as he was on Thursday against the Mavericks, with 17 points. In fact, in four seasons in silver and black, Thursday’s high game was just his sixth.

What really set apart his performance was the fact he scored more than the combined output of a pair of future Hall of Fame big men, teammate Tim Duncan and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, 17-16.

That rarity was a perfect setup for Duncan’s dry wit.

“That’s what Matt Bonner is supposed to do,” said Duncan, who scored 10 points. “That’s what we brought him here for, and that’s what we expect from him from now on, night in and night out, I guess. That’s about right.”

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